«A SPECTRAL TURN AROUND VENICE By Luke Jones I spent several days, during a recent trip to Venice, in conversation with a ghost. The writer and critic ...»
Both melancholy and nostalgia have the potential to be quite reactionary. Andreas Huyssen has said of nostalgia that ‘it is difficult to walk the line between sentimental lament over a loss and the critical reclaiming of a past for the purposes of constructing alternative futures’ (Huyssen 2006, 9). Jane Rendell has elsewhere added, about melancholy, that, while ‘the melancholic view […] towards the past has often been criticised for being nostalgic or turning away from a social critique of current conditions, it is possible for such a position to be critically productive and provide the potential for new and different futures’ (Rendell 2006, 85).
Ruskin’s melancholy and nostalgia are neither entirely convincing as critique, nor wholly damnable as sentimental time-wasting. Despite his undoubted desire to imagine an alternative future and his polemical critique of everyday art and society, Ruskin’s sentimentalism, and the way that he gazes so resolutely into a distant and idealised past, marks his words as coming from a different era entirely. His general approbation of the ‘Christian imagination’ of builders and sculptors expresses an entirely discredited sort of moralism (Ruskin 1873 II, 312). To follow such a commentary around the building is to feel very powerfully the distance between then and now, and the ‘ruined’ state of that Victorian mindset.
More ruined still is Ruskin’s notion of the authentic, which is central to his preference for the city’s Byzantine and Gothic periods (Ruskin 1873 I, 4-34). ‘Ruin’ thus comes to refer both to the eloquent traces of this ﬁrst, noble age and simultaneously to the evidence of collapse during the second Renaissance period (Ruskin 1873 III, 2). His view of authenticity is discernible in the way that he views these fragments as truthful, potentially eloquent, traces of the past. The reason for his preference for the Gothic over the Renaissance has to do with the ‘freedom’ of the
workman to express himself in the former case, and his inability to do so in the latter instance:
‘You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both’ (Ruskin 1873 II, 161).
The artifacts of this idealised time represent the authentic, un-alienated product of the labour of its creators. To journey around Venice in Ruskin’s company, and to follow his commentary on its spaces and places, is necessarily to be made aware of this naive notion of the authentic. It would be difficult indeed to sustain seriously such a view nowadays. Within the space of his argument, we can glimpse a world in which the notion of ‘authenticity’ is not yet implicated (as now, post-Adorno) in the construction of fascism, against which it also stands fast, rather than being rendered meaningless by ‘alienation, inauthenticity and reproducibility’, and the ‘shadow of mass-media representation and distortion’ which characterises the modern day (Huyssen 2006, 12). Huyssen has attempted to rehabilitate another notion of authenticity – that of Piranesi. But where Piranesi’s ‘refusal of wholeness and classical closure’ (Huyssen 2006, 15) can quite easily be redecorated as a palatably edgy and disruptive contemporary manner of critique, Ruskin’s highly emotive, religious-minded sentimentalism is beyond such a rehabilitation.
Yet, in an age in which the worth of utopian thinking itself is disputed, and in which the possible use of such ‘open, dynamic and provocative’ utopianism ‘to challenge the conditions of the present’ (Pinder 2005, 265) has to be vigorously argued for, the ingenuous way in which Ruskin presumes to challenge and overturn the visual and social norms of his age is something about which one can easily feel nostalgic. Moreover, the awareness of the irreversible gap between his utopian imaginary and my own is itself a narrative which transforms the experience of architectural space.
The narrative critiques, and lends a further degree of pathos to, the walk along the Riva de’ Schiavoni, where amorphous, globalised forces of production have, since Ruskin, contrived to deck the old jetty with stalls selling imported plastic parasols and the same range of postcards to crowds of tourists, to the exclusion of all other activity. One is made aware of what Gianfranco Pertot has called ‘the slow but continuous construction of a one-dimensional image of Venice’ and ‘the development of the stereotype of the “museum city”’ (Pertot 2004, 9-18).
Against this inexorable force of dissimulation, Ruskin’s argument seems quaint and rather lost;
but, despite its state of ruin, it can still critically illuminate the condition of the present.
I went back to my apartment, and it was not until a day or so later that Ruskin led me back towards the centre of Venice again via the street known to him as Calle Lunga San Moise, which is now the Calle Lunga XXII
Marzo, his description of which was so at odds with what I myself saw as to be quite disorientating:
The street is now a parade of empty souvenir sellers, behind whose plate-glass windows are piled thousands of startlingly ugly Murano glass ornaments. As I walked past these, he described with a strange, Anglican horror the
clusters of dark shops which had stood there, each with its own shrine to the Virgin:
I noted, at each shop, its ﬂuorescent interior, identical with the one before it.
But then, as we emerged onto the Piazza San Marco, his narration mirrored the unfolding scene so truly that I now ﬁnd that my memory of the scene and his description of it are inseparable, and that I cannot recall one
without the other:
Remembering St Mark’s, I am somehow constantly in this moment of arrival.
Ruin and narrative In general, if Ruskin’s narration of the Ducal Palace as a ruin was mostly ‘disruptive’ – penetrating the existing fabric with ghostly forms and viewing it in fragments – then his mode here, at the Basilica, is different. Often, Ruskin’s words create a ruinous impression by inscribing the Basilica on to a sort of picturesque sequence. It is not an image as such: the Basilica is situated in a very deliberate and signiﬁcant context, as with a picturesque image, but this context occurs before or after, rather than beside it, so that the memory of the Calle Lunga San Moise is still very much present as the Basilica appears. The elements are signiﬁcantly juxtaposed within a narrative rather than, as one might normally do, in a picturesque image, within a landscape in which the objects are simultaneously visible.
The intention of this approach is to reveal the Basilica as a fantastic image at the end of a rather dismal promenade: ‘we forget them all, for between those pillars there opens a great light’ (Ruskin 1873 II, 65). The cathedral is therefore foregrounded against the gloomy landscape through which the narrative has just passed. The narrative device of surprise is a means by which the splendour of the building, and the contrast that it makes with its drab surroundings, is emphasised. The description of the vicious and indolent masses who surround and ignore it – ‘knots of men of the lowest classes, unemployed and listless[…] basking in the sun like lizards’ – combines with the squalor that is described on the approach; there is a pervasive atmosphere of decay, in which the Basilica is marooned (Ruskin 1873 II, 67).
To recognise a building as a ruin is to imagine a past, a departed state of ‘wholeness’.
Ruskin uses picturesque devices, such as the promenade and the surrounding narrative landscape, to ‘ruin’ St Mark’s by severing it from the ignorance and baseness of its neighbours and inhabitants. Its built fabric has not fallen to pieces, but it suffers injury, and is no longer whole, by being ignored and unloved. The most strikingly ruinous transformation which occurs is entirely unintentional, produced by the anachronistic quality of his descriptions of Venice today, which poignantly document the atmosphere of the city when it was still mostly inhabited by Venetians whose lives were not yet entirely occluded by the growth of tourism. The scene which he describes with such horror now incites nostalgia: the vivid squalor of Ruskin’s description has a promise of authenticity which is unavailable in the meretricious and sterile environment that exists in its place. The cathedral is, arguably, no less ‘ruined’ in the depopulated Venice of today;
and if it is now highly regarded, and gazed at incessantly, it is also alien to the crowds who pay to photograph and objectify it. The irony is that, for all its anachronism, Ruskin’s description of the crowds outside St Mark’s gives a model of ‘ruination’ in which the new crowd can effectively be substituted for the old.
The loneliness of Ruskin’s position is also potentially ‘ruinous’ in character. Robert Harbison has argued that, in Ruskin’s narrative, ‘it is the speaker who stands desolate, who feels cut off from the happy crowds, but worse still, from the building, bereft and alien in front of its dumbness […]. He and St Mark’s are lost together, neither understood, neither loved, every communication a failure’ (Harbison 1977, 56). Ruskin’s estrangement is analogous to that of St Mark’s itself; there is a poignancy to the fact that the profound, deeply-felt emotions which he expresses seem incomprehensible, by his account, to the other people around him.
It is a poignancy which is only enhanced by the time which has passed since he ﬁrst wrote those words. His inability to communicate, there in St Mark’s square, seems almost to preﬁgure his inability to convey properly to the public back in Britain the ideas that he had developed. His own view in 1871, twenty or so years after the first publication of the book, was that
Ruskin’s intention was to use the ruin of Venice within the rhetorical space of a polemic about architecture, and to provoke a revolution of sorts. But his legacy was entirely distasteful to him;
in his view, architects had imitated the styles he described without making any attempt to understand the spirit which animated them. As one historian put it: ‘the nineteenth century devoured his purple and glowing prose, and then – in his name – committed every sort of architectural vandalism’ (Furneaux-Jordan 1966, 170). Ruskin’s self-designated role in this scene, as a man apart from the crowd, was in life to be his sad fate, his ruin.
On the last day, Ruskin and I took the little-used boat which runs from Burano to Torcello, the abandoned medieval city on the northern fringe of the lagoon. From the top of its solitary campanile, Ruskin promised, ‘we may command […] one of the most notable scenes in this wide world of ours’. He described the building merging with its landscape; a landscape totally saturated in a kind of all-encompassing melancholy, ‘a waste of wild sea moor, of a lurid ashen grey […] lifeless, the colour of sackcloth […] the corrupted sea water soaking through the roots of its acrid weeds’ (Ruskin 1873 II, 11).
Its condition had become somewhat altered. The journey which Ruskin describes, up a ‘narrow creek of sea […] winding for some time among buried fragments of masonry’ now takes place on foot, on a smart brick road, next to a fat, soapy channel of green water. From somewhere in the middle distance, the whine of a petrol generator can be heard. There are several recently-built houses, whose gardens are marked with a succession of chain-link fences.
We reached the cathedral and climbed the tower. From the top, a loud roaring sound could be heard.
Towards the horizon, the salt marshes merged, in a grey haze, with the airport. The channels in the grey lagoon through which our ferry had travelled were marked with piles and buoys, which from the tower appeared to extend, without interruption, the geometry of the runways and taxiways out into the lagoon, almost to the shore of Torcello itself. I descended, ﬁlled with unease.
The ‘Ruin’ of Ruin
The landscape which holds these ruins, the abandoned churches and grassed-over palazzo, now ﬁnds itself circumscribed by human intervention. Antoine Picon has likened this removal of a ‘natural vista’, in which urbanity can be framed, to a sort of imprisonment in which ‘it is impossible for us to detach ourselves from the thousand and one gestures that connect us to the urban landscape in front of our eyes’ (Picon 2000, 72-6). In such a landscape, visibly and invisibly contained by human action, where every vista contains some present human intervention, the idea of a ruin in the sense that Ruskin imagines it is endangered. His description of the prospect, as a ‘melancholy clearness of space’ (Ruskin 1873 II, 11), is in a sense still apposite, but the authentic, bleak emptiness of nature has been effaced by the twenty-first century’s expansive urban periphery, in which it is hard to know if there is any nature to which the ruin may return, or any way of knowing whether an apparent ruin is real or purely spectacular.
Torcello has been transformed since Ruskin described it. But there is something potentially critically productive in the way that his visual account of the area’s bleakness still, perversely, seems appropriate. In the cathedral, he examines the marks of its builders – ‘the two solemn mosaics […] expressive at once of the deep sorrow and the sacred courage of men who had no home left them upon earth’ (Ruskin 1873 II, 14). Through this concern with the authentic, he illuminates the difference between the bleak landscape he described and the similarly stark and grey one which exists now; it is impossible to speak of authenticity in a landscape in which all the proper borders between things have been occluded by the invisible networks which permeate it. In this way, the demonstrable ruin of Ruskin’s concept of ruin is nonetheless a critique of the present.